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Zhenjiang, Abandoned City

abandoned shop

Lijiao, a Sewing Machine Riviera

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This is the unedited English translation of an article I wrote for Guangzhou News Express, published 8/29/2012

It’s not easy to find a village of factory workers in Guangzhou anymore. So many big factories are moving overseas or to other parts of China. The Pearl River Delta is no longer the sole producer of the world’s goods, and that means a culture is dying. Small factory towns are disappearing. Lijiao is one of the last villages in Guangzhou where every window of every shop has a sewing machine. Some of the small brick houses have stacks of wood outside for cooking.

It’s a village of small businesses, everything is family run. Tiny factories making plastic bags, shirts, clothes, toys, gift boxes. In the 1980s a village like this was very modern, not it’s old Guangzhou. This tiny area of Haizhu district is intersected with a quarry, but the water doesn’t move. It’s heavily polluted and a few remaining fishing boats collect garbage. One fishing boat is a restaurant. It’s a lovely riviera; imagine Suzhou with humming sewing machines on every corner.

Some people think a factory is a big building in the middle of nowhere, with hundreds of people standing in uniforms. These factories are just men and women wearing sandals and sewing clothes while watching TV and talking. Very busy but still very casual.

This is a culture that won’t be here in ten years. It’s like watching a final moment in history.

Not a big production, but just small work where people get paid per item rather than on salary. It’s one of the only places to see small businesses, all family run factories, family run markets and restaurants. No commercial business anywhere. Every so often small motorcycle will ride by with a stack of boxes. It’s small, and relaxing, but still a very busy place.

A few architectural features will hopefully be saved such as the river and the century old trees. The new developments are already selling, but they remain empty. This is a new trend.

With a housing bubble already burst, new developments stay empty. I walked across the highway and into a new building named “Riverside Mansions. The agent handed me a booklet and told me the apartments were 20,200 per square meter. I tried not to laugh. I realized that’s why the building was empty. That’s insane.

Villages of people, with over a hundred years of culture are replaced with no one. Just empty high rises with empty space.  This is the plan to put more “Green Space” in Haizhu District. That means destroy villages around Nanzhou road and build a new high rises along the river.

This past summer I listened to a lecture given by a member of Guangzhou’s Urban planning board about the extension of Guangzhou’s green space in Haizhu District. The first thing I thought about then were the villages around Nanzhou. Lijiao Village is already surrounded by several new developments, only new buildings are empty. Housing prices are too high so new buildings are filled with only a few people.

It’s a strange time where villages of people are replaced with empty buildings. It’s a replacement of people and culture with big empty buildings.

Though walking through the tiny streets of Lijiao it’s hard to tell the village is soon to be gone. There are no buildings marked 拆 just yet. There are a few worship halls,but they’re closed and not well kept. One was even boarded up with plaster. It’s almost like everyone is waiting to be asked to leave. I asked a few women sewing clothes how old the worship hall was and they told me they didn’t know but it was closed. Very friendly, they enjoyed talking and gossiping while the worked.

Only a few posters advertising a future shopping district and big red sign from the police assuring people that they no one will be forced out illegally and everyone will be paid what they’re owed. It’s unclear exactly what that means.

Most part time jobs are advertised in the next village over, Hojiao. It has more restaurants, more salons and generally a younger crowd. A large migrant community mingling with locals. A great mix of accents, and people moving from job to job. In front of the Hojiao shopping center a line of employers advertises work with small cardboard signs.

This village is just the same as it was when I visited it last year. It was also under threat of demolition, but the housing market has hit a wall with last years drop in sales. The result is villages like Lijiao, still thriving just as it has for decades. And empty building towering above with real estate agents who wait for rich people. Here is the warning posted on a big red sign that nothing illegal will occur when the village is destroyed. I suppose that’s meant to be comforting.

One thing that is certain, is that the new developments in Haizhu are empty, and factories in Lijiao are still working. It will be a shame to see it go. Right now while real estate agents are struggling to make commission, developers are going bankrupt. New developers are struggling to find wealthy buyers, but Lijiao village is doing just fine.

New History on Liede Ave

Hunter Lane and Xian Village, New History on Liede Avenue


(English Translation of article published in Guangzhou News Express 8/8/2012)

Click Here for Chinese Article

One of the most majestic views of Guangzhou is walking over the Lide bridge in the evening. The Guangzhou Tower is lit up across the river from the IFC building in Zhujiang New Town. Guangzhou is an ultra-modern city, it’s hard for visitors to understand that that Guangzhou dates back to the Han, Zhou, and Sui Dynasties, with over nearly 1500 of international trade. Guangzhou could qualify as ancient, but really it’s one of the most modern cities in the world.

China’s strong sense of economic growth and weak sense of tangible heritage creates a demand for history people can see. Lie Ren Fang, also known as Hunter Lane is one of several new developments to fill that demand.

Just next to the Liede Bridge. A new strip of Lingnan style villas, ornamented with colorful plaster and clay roofs, giving the impression of a historic district. Only this is new.

Can something new brand new be historic?

The style is traditional, but there is no local culture. It’s a strip of high priced foreign bars and cafes like Restaurant Francias, with an expensive French menu and Water under the bridge with latin dancing on Friday nights. One shop I walked into sold 800 RMB bottles of wine.

“It’s from Australia.” The seller informed me standing uncomfortably close, as the other workers giggled practicing English phrases.

Lie Ren Fang is built for tourists with more money than culture. People who felt their stay at the Garden Hotel was not authentically Chinese, can sit at one of these overpriced cafés, look at the architecture and live out a fantasy of China in their mind.

Some could argue that this is fake history I call it creative history.

Lie Ren Fang is worth a visit, but it’s more important to walk one block north past the construction of high rises and see the demolition of Xian Village.


Xian Village is an actual village being demolished just one block away. Though not as picturesque, it is genuine; and reflects an important moment in time. To enter Xian Village you must show work ID or residence permit. The photos I’ve taken are from across the street.

Outside the walls of demolition are migrant workers recycling the building materials separating the wood, metal, and tile. It’s an amazing process, these buildings are not literally recycled, nothing wasted. Many owners are still in a process of negotiating payment from the government. This works well for owners but not renters.

This routine is nothing new. We saw this in Pazhou village, Zhu village, and Yangji village. This is why history is sometimes a fantasy. Young people understand that the neighborhood they grew up in will quickly be gone.

Compensation for property,chai qian拆迁, is more important than the property itself. This is unique, and a huge generational gap. Young adults born in the 90s face higher inflation, higher cost of living, and more competition than children born in the 80s or 70s could would have imagined.

Overall, Guangzhou has improved in recent years, but it’s only improved for people who can afford it. In preparation for the 2010 Asian Games, Guangzhou became tremendously more efficient. The 5 metro connecting to Foshan, the fast train to Changsha, the BRT, and brilliantly new structures like the Guangzhou Opera House and the Guangdong Museum have had a positive effect on the city. Even the air quality has improved. Now the challenge is for Guangzhou is to create sustainable development, for long lasting middle income communities.

A better alternative to demolishing villages is to restore and improve them.

Good examples of restoration are the City Walls from the Ming Dynasty, the Haizhu Bridge, and Goella’s restoration of 255 Beijing Road, the restoration of the Aiqing building, Changji Road, Shamien Island and Huangpu Village. These show more integrity than new villas made to look old.

Protecting and reusing a structure is also cost effective.

Empty factory buildings in Haizhu District, Nanzhou, and Panyu can be converted into middle and low income housing blocks. Along with older row houses with beautiful Xiguan design.

Photo by George McKibbens 2012


This is a better solution than building high rises that only a few people can live in. With a 40% drop in housing sales after 2011 there is no guarantee that in 2 years developments of Liede, Pazhou Island, or Yangji will actually have people living in them.

That’s why so many new buildings stay empty. They’re only for the rich.

The two Satellite Cities of Zhengchen and Conghua are more affordable, but too far from any resources. New suburbs like Guangzhou Knowledge City have inferior transportation and create the need to own a car. Suburbs isolate people, and disconnect cities.

As manufacturing jobs move overseas and to less developed areas of the country, Guangzhou’s cultural tourism should compete with it’s retail tourism. More promotion and accessibility to places like the Huangpu Military Academy, Huisheng Mosque, or Nanyue Kingdom will build a stronger sense of heritage. A restoration of Xiguan buildings like the ones on Erning road and Qing Ping road are better than creating an imaginary history like the villas of Lie Ren Fang.

For too long Guangzhou’s tourism has been focused events like the Canton Fair which send a message that Guangzhou is only a place to manufacture cheap goods. Guangzhou’s history should not be a manufactured, but something real people can live in and grow old in.

Endangered Relic at Guangzhou’s Qing Ping Market

On the intersection of Qing Ping Road and Baiyun East Road there was a recent demolition of several tropical fish shops. This is address shared by the former (儿童剧团 Er Tong Jiao Tuan) Guangzhou Communist Children’s Theater which led numerous gorilla theater projects after the occupation of Guangzhou in 1938. Number 34 Baiyun East Road is hardly recognized as a historic relic aside from plaque on the side of the building. Without better attention given to the history of the building the city can lose an important historical evidenceImage.

Here is a photo of the Children’s Theater Reunion in 2004Image


Remains of West Gate City Walls

Remains of West Gate City Walls

Open House

Just fun it’s nice to get dressed up a little and go visit an open house way out our price range. Rare views of a city from the sky for future home owners. I did that with my girlfriend this weekend, we were escorted into a building still under construction. I stood over the balcony while workers were balancing on the scaffolding, perspective tenants looked at the view.  The inside of each apartment had fake furniture, fake pictures, and bowls of wax fruit. A museum of future rich, or future empty apartments.



Shan Cun, Guangzhou’s Next Major Demolition

Here are several photos of a massive demolition project going on in Guangzhou. While one village is destroyed another strip of villas is under construction along the water. This contrast is right by the the Liede bridge with a beautiful view of the Guangzhou tower. For more on this visit George McKibbens Travel-Blog.